HEBER — El Toro Exports, which borders Heber to the south, could see as many as 17,000 new head of cattle in the next couple of years.
The Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to approve an expansion plan for the company after nearly an hour and a half of discussion and debate by agriculture producers and interested parties. Once the issue went back to the board, supervisors considered pushing the issue to a later meeting or even sending the project back to the planning commission, before ultimately voting to approve a zone change and mitigated negative declaration, which states there will be minimal impacts on the surrounding environment.
The expansion project includes two phases. The first would add 9,000 cattle to the feedlot site in an area where Bermuda grass currently grows. The second phase includes an additional 8,000 head of cattle in the area where the feedlot currently houses its composting operation.
The project isn’t on newly acquired property, but rather adds more head of cattle to the current footprint of El Toro’s operation, said Bill Plourd, president of El Toro Exports. New cattle pens would be added to existing El Toro property.
“The question is why? And the answer is economics,” he said. “In general, the cattle industry has been good over the last few years … Our interest is to responsibly grow our business.”
The first expansion could be done within a year, he said, adding that the second expansion would occur after a new site for the composting operations is found and approved. That could take another year or more.
Not only is El Toro Exports expanding, but other feedlot expansions have previously been approved in the last few years, said Tom DuBose with DuBose Design Group, representing El Toro Exports. Those business expansions as a whole have the potential to increase the cattle industry by 25 percent, which he said would be a great boost for the Valley.
“Agriculture in Imperial County is our No. 1 industry, and within agriculture, cattle and livestock is the No. 1 agricultural commodity,” Dubose said. “Cattle feeding and livestock is a half a billion dollar industry in our county. … The No. 1 commodity from the No. 1 industry in our county is about to significantly grow.”
Some agriculture and feedlot representatives spoke out in favor of the project, like Eric Brandt, president of One World Beef, who shared his “enthusiastic support” of the project.
“Four years into our journey, we need to expand the Valley’s cattle herd to accommodate our growth objectives,” he said. “… Currently we’re only running four days a week as we await more cattle to process. So, we’re eager for the continued growth of local feedlots so that we can get back to a normal five-day production schedule, which will result in us hiring more team members.”
However, the expansion was not without its critics.
“We have no problem with El Toro. Our history goes way back with the original owners,” said Linda Scaroni-Rossi, who is part of the Scaroni farming family operation whose businesses are based in Heber. “I think the point here is just the location of this feedlot, being so close to the Heber community and ag land, it’s just not a good place for it to expand. … If the feedlot was there before most of the homes, that’s one thing. But to let the feedlot expand after the fact does affect the homes, and it does have impact on the homes and the area.
“To proceed with this development without proceeding with a full environmental impact report is just irresponsible in my opinion,” Scaroni-Rossi added. “I would like to see you send it back to the planning department at the very least and vote no.”
“The argument is always jobs over health, and that should not be the rhetoric anymore in the Imperial Valley,” said Miguel Hernandez with Comite Civico del Valle, adding that the group is strongly opposed to the project the way it was presented to the board. “Please vote no on this resolution.”
Others cited the method in which the project came before the board and what some said was a lack of notifications for the Heber community.
“In no uncertain terms this application has been pursued illegally and has not followed a normal, lawful process for a zone change and expansion of this magnitude and has not properly studied the impacts it places on the community,” said Steve Scaroni, who lives close to El Toro’s operation. He is also founder and owner of the Scaroni Family of Companies.
“Gentlemen, supervisors, you are the gatekeepers. You are responsible for doing things correctly and legally for the benefit of the people who live in the communities and this county that the board serves,” Steve Scaroni added.
Supervisors Ryan Kelley and Luis Plancarte both emphasized how the project has been talked about for a number of years before the Aug. 11 vote.
“It’s not something that’s just manifested in the last 30 or 60 days,” Kelley said before the vote.
Supervisor Jesus Escobar motioned to allow the expansion, citing sustainable growth within the cattle industry being necessary from a financial standpoint. “Am I a huge proponent of economic development through industrial as well as manufacturing? Absolutely,” he said. “But at the end of the day we have to remain true to our roots, and the cattle industry is true to our roots.”